Monday, March 31, 2014

MFA vs. NYC vs. Reality

When I heard about the new book on contemporary American literature titled MFA vs. NYC, I thought, "Are those my only choices?" Surely our collective literary imagination has not so atrophied that we can straightfacedly envision the literature of this vast and heterogeneous nation as existing solely within a few blocks of Brooklyn and on the scattered islands of the Academic Archipelago (a wintry prison that still awaits its satirical Solzhenitsyn, Richard Russo's Straight Man being not nearly good enough). The tunnel vision encapsulated in the title is a parodic publishing company executive's Manhattan-centric view of America, that New York provincialism that thinks the country ends a few miles west of the Hudson and that LA and San Francisco are two islands sprouting Hawaii-like from the far Pacific. New York centrism and academic careerism may be realities of corporate publishing and literary writing, respectively--most major publishers are, after all, based in New York, and even the rock stars of literary fiction rarely sell enough books to support themselves without an academic dayjob (one of the most shocking details in D. T. Max's too-summary biography of David Foster Wallace is the statistic that in its first ten years of publication Infinite Jest sold a mere 150,000 copies; respectable numbers for experimental fiction, but Stephen King (a writer Wallace read and apparently liked) has probably had days on which he has sold that many books between breakfast and lunch). But these two phenomena--traditional publishing and literary careerism--are an infinitesimal part of the contemporary American story. If one reads only novels written by Iowa City graduates now resident in Brooklyn, one might acquire a vision of America much like the one adumbrated in the HBO series Girls, and one would have little notion that for much of the United States, Game of Thrones, The Wire and Breaking Bad are considerably closer to the 'pointy end' of things--closer, that is, to the America most of its citizens know, a place of money woes, death fear, sudden violence, delusional paranoia, and the everyday surrealism of living peacefully in a time of horrendous war. The limited literature of MFA and NYC (maybe we should call it the academic-corporate complex) has definitively captured none of these realities; indeed, many of its most highly regarded products seem strangely stuck in the last century.

To take a more or less random example, Nicole Krauss's Great House should have been a brilliantly cosmopolitan, mindblowing masterpiece, an American cousin of Roberto Bolano's extraordinary 2666 and W. G. Sebald's even more impressive Austerlitz. At least that's what the cover blurbs would lead one to expect. The reviewer from Elle tells us that this novel "reminds us what it means to be alive." And lest we dismiss that as typical reviewer's hyperbole, the book opens with seven pages of blurbs. That's right. Seven almost-solid pages of praise. Now, I know blurbing has gotten completely out of hand in recent years, but this is ridiculous. A law of diminishing returns kicks in when before I even reach a title page I've already turned through seven pages of effusions from everyone from Sam Tanenhaus to!). Methinks, I think, the publisher doth protest too much. Krauss's Great House is not, alas, a great novel, but it's not exactly a bad one either. Rather, it's a typically competent, highly readable, quickly forgettable product of the academic-corporate publishing complex. While I found some things to admire in the book and thought it interesting enough to finish, it left me with the sense that I'd just consumed a sort of Duncan Hines literary confection: one cup DeLillo, one cup Sebald, two tablespoons David Grossman, a pinch of Bolano, add high seriousness and stir. It's an A-student's novel, designed to satisfy her relatively small circle of readers the same way successful students' papers are tailored to the tastes of their professors. (I too was an A-student, so I know the signs.) Seven pages of blurbs suggest that this limited goal was achieved admirably, but will the author ever leave the MFA program in her mind?

The main ingredient in Krauss's stew of 1990s influences is the writer who seems to have replaced Raymond Carver as the paradigmatic literary hero of the MFA-NYC school, Don DeLillo. He seems the perfect hero for a young writer: prolific, uncompromising, artistically successful, caustically critical, admirably intelligent, and to put the cherry atop the sundae, he was David Foster Wallace's penpal and father-confessor. But unfortunately there is another, less positive side to his influence. (Full disclosure: I've loved some of DeLillo's works (Running Dog, Libra), liked others (parts of Underworld, Mao II), disliked some (Americana, other parts of Underworld) and absolutely hated the one that most people seem to love (White Noise), so my attitude toward DeLillo, while mixed, is not necessarily negative.) The most serious problem with DeLillo's MFA apotheosis is that he is, relatively speaking, a rather limited writer. It's not that he repeats themes and ideas from novel to novel--of course he does; all writers do that--nor even that most of his characters, from Americana through Underworld and beyond, seem to speak with the same voice (I will never understand critics who praise DeLillo's ear for American speech; the dude's ear is stamped out of tin). The biggest problem is that of the major living older American novelists--DeLillo, Roth, Morrison, McCarthy, Pynchon, Gass, Matthiessen--DeLillo seems to have been chosen for canonization precisely because he presents the least challenge to academic assimilation. The academy can swallow him because his works bear the fewest thorns. He has neither Roth's political incorrectness nor Morrison's fiercely dark vision of America, neither McCarthy's repulsive violence nor Pynchon's prurient pornography, neither Gass's juvenile limericks nor Matthiessen's CIA past. We might almost say DeLillo won the nomination because he's the Mitt Romney of American literature, the debater with the fewest demerits. Oh, he's a fierce critic of capitalism and all that, but his critiques are sugared with a heavy enough dose of irony to make the medicine taste sweet. Having elevated such a writer to paradigmatic status, we should not be surprised when novelists influenced by him create a limited and relatively safe literature, a literature more Franzen and Lethem than Morrison and Wallace.

But wait, there's more bad news from the aesthetic asphyxiation front. In addition to setting up Don DeLillo like a cardboard calf for younger writers to worship, our universities also encourage artists to strangle themselves upon the knotty cords of fallacious 'theories.' The academically generated idea that seems to have hogtied David Foster Wallace and certainly ruined the ending of Ian McEwan's Atonement is the ludicrous notion that because something called 'Modernism' has been superseded by something called 'Postmodernism,' works that could be described as 'modernist' are no longer possible. The ideologues of pomo would be as gods (or popes, rather) and make all artists the prisoners of their hypostases. The idea is multiply fallacious. First, as stated, it asserts that there was something called Modernism which existed the way an oak tree exists, in the space between its 19th-century roots and 20th-century branches. This idea becomes exceedingly problematic when one notes the range of works that shelter under the Modernist canopy, from Howard's End to Finnegans Wake, from "The Jolly Corner" to "Hills Like White Elephants," from Proust's Recherche to Woolf's Orlando, from Yeats to Dada... If Modernism be a single tree, where is its blossom, where its bole? Second, it asserts that something called Postmodernism can be distinguished from Modernism in the way cardinals are distinguished from sparrows. In fact, each and every characteristic of Postmodernism can be found in the canonical works of Modernism. (Try to think of one that isn't; if you know the Modernists well enough, you won't be able to. Even post-Shoah consciousness is arguably prefigured in Kafka.) Mo is always already Pomo. Third, the notion of Postmodernism succeeding Modernism is based upon an organic metaphor that silently likens literary history to a growing plant or animal that passes through various stages of life, leaving earlier stages behind like fallen flowers or shed skin. This is probably the fundamental fallacy of literary (and art) history. Artistic processes simply do not adhere to the implacable chronologies of organic time. Literature 'lives' differently. The literature of the past obviously determines that of the present (even writers like Sebald who seem sui generis usually only seem so), but the present is the inevitably distorting lens through which we view the literature of the past and take from it the works that continue to serve (as Sebald took Stifter and Keller and set them in the literary pasts of readers who might never have otherwise known them). The literary present determines the past as much as the past determines the present. To assert that we must all write postmodern novels because we live in postmodern times is to misunderstand the porous nature of literary time and to make oneself the monk of a new religion, to subject oneself (like all early adherents) to the overwhelming power of one's own projections. But writers, and artists generally, need feel no imperative to adhere to any rule except the Polonian: to thine own self be true. If so-called Modernism is the literature that most answers the call of your consciousness, then write Moddy novels and let the theoretical Gradgrinds go grind themselves.

Modernism is not some superseded doctrine like the phlogiston theory of fire. The concerns of Modernist literature are at least as valid today as they were a century ago: alienation, anxiety, the technologization of life, the mediation of knowledge, consciousness of the absurdity and meaninglessness of life, the precariousness of existence, the absence of transcendence and the insufficiency of utopianism, the death of gods and the birth of the material world, the redemption of this falling world in the act of crazy love that turns it into art. None of these ideas is in any way outdated. Add the triumph of corporatism, the pauperization of the working class and the proletarianization of the bourgeoisie, and you have a set of themes for an ideal 21st-century fiction. Indeed, the idea that Modernist fiction is outdated might be a defense mechanism--just as "Postmodernism" is a defense--against the terrible relevance of the Modern. It's an idea that protects writers from the overwhelming power of Modernist art, from the anxiety-inducing achievements of a period that produced Picasso, Proust, Pound, Paterson, Eliot, Joyce, Yeats, Woolf, Conrad, James, Colette, Gide, Bulgakov, Kafka, Miller, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Welles, Dali, Man Ray, Mandelshtam, Duchamp, Matisse, Artaud, Schulz, Mann, Rhys, Nin, Faulkner, Anderson, Stein, etc., etc., etc. ... As I type this list, I sadly laugh at the thought that today's MFA programs have set up Don DeLillo as their paradigmatic novelist. Such a polestar assures at least a generation of superhip prose technicians, bloodless tellers of bloodless tales where the only thing that really flows is irony.

Art is the only form of redemption I trust. So let me close by dilating upon two of those Modernist themes implied above: the ideas that art is the only redemption we can trust and that sex is as much of transcendence as we can know. It is perhaps not overly Romantic to consider these ideas at least potentially revolutionary in our increasingly banal and frightened world. Ignoring religion as unnecessary (at best), these ideas ground transcendence in material reality. This is to suggest that the proper path of art is not that of unlimited ironic play but the messier, muddier, dirtier road where writers must blacken their hands with the inkdark realities of our world. Postmodernism, from Derrida to DeLillo (and especially in the work of their followers), seems increasingly an ironic Game of Thrones where artists and thinkers putter and plot in King's Landing while cowering from the assaults of the real (Derrida as King Joffrey, Stanley Fish as Lord Baelish, Fredric Jameson as Varys the court eunuch). The truly subversive act, today, is to leap those pasteboard walls and investigate the realities of material existence. The needful act is to hurl one's imagination against the terror of nothingness, the wonder of being, the redemptions of art, the transcendence through eros. Enough of theory, let us live.

No comments: